Wednesday 28 September 2011

Holding On: Bundesliga Is Not The Only Competition for Serie A

Lazio rejoice during an unnecessarily complicated draw versus Vaslui
It wouldn't totally be a fall from grace. After all, Italian football has had well-documented problems ranging from lurid match-fixing to racism in stadia, so grace probably flatters Italy's footballing context.  However, as far as performances are concerned, the risultati, which Italian teams have often privileged over method and spectacle, Italian football is teetering.

The UEFA coefficient rankings may be imperfect, but they are far more reflective of a league's comprehensive health than the farcical FIFA rankings are of a nation's quality on the world stage.  And as far as the UEFA rankings are concerned, Serie A has not only fallen behind the Bundesliga, but is in genuine danger of being usurped by France's Ligue 1 and even Portugal's Primeira Liga (see table below the article).

The reason is simple: while an Italian team has won the Champions League twice in the last four years (Milan in 2007 and Inter in 2010), Italian clubs in general have treated the Europa League with derisive contempt.  This is even after they know that victories in the Europa League gain valuable points for the coefficients (see a detailed explanation of how coefficients work on this outstanding site). On the one hand, it is difficult to blame them.  The financial incentives to compete in what many see as a perfunctory sideshow to the Champions League are not significant enough to motivate a team like Udinese to field their preferred starting line-up (after all, the winner of the competition earns at best close to six million euros).  For example, Antonio Di Natale is being rested for the trip to Glasgow when Udinese play Celtic on Thursday.

However, even when Italian teams have fielded a semblance of a starting line-up, or at least a fairly competitive one, the results have been disappointing.  Lazio's 2-2 draw with Romanian outfit Vaslui on the first matchday was risible.  The starting line-up contained Federico Marchetti, Cristian Ledesma, Tommaso Rocchi, and new signing Djibril Cisse.  Sure, key players like Hernanes did not start, but Lazio should have, with all due respect to Vaslui, recorded an easy win with the players who did.

The mantra of "there are no easy games," which is ubiquitous in football journalism but remains suspicious, does not apply here.  While there is no way to peer into the hearts and minds of the players, what remains clear is that Lazio did not play with the same urgency and spontaneity they played with when they gained a far more creditable 2-2 draw against Milan only days earlier.

Somewhat similarly, Udinese's slight 2-1 win over Rennes at the Stadio Tardini was an exercise in salvaging three points that should never have been in jeopardy to begin with.  How can a team that came torturingly close to eliminating Arsenal in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League be on the backfoot against Rennes just a few weeks later? Admittedly, Rennes may resent my cavalier attitude, for they did finish sixth in Ligue 1, and were even in the top four for some of the 2010-11 season.

Fiorentina vs Rangers in the 2007-08 UEFA Cup
What is less arguable than my characterization of Rennes, however, is that Udinese did not play with the same urgency with which they did against Arsenal.  Yet, this alibi of there is no real financial incentive to play well in Europa League does not seem to have legitimacy in Germany or France, and the results are there for all to see.  Just take the last few seasons.  Hamburg and Werder Bremen were involved in the Europa League semi-finals during the 2008-09 season (Werder Bremen progressed to the final, only to be beaten by Shakhtar Donetsk), and PSG and Marseille were in the quarter-finals.  Only Udinese were in the quarter-finals from Italy.  Similarly, during the 2009-10 season, Hamburg and Wolfsburg were in the running during the quarter-finals, with Hamburg making it to the semi-finals.  Last season witnessed Portuguese domination, with Benfica, Braga and Porto competing in the final four.  Porto ended up winning the competition against Braga in the final.

The last time Italy did have representation at even the semi-final stage of Europe's second-tier competition was when Fiorentina lost to Rangers on penalties during the 2007-08 season of what was then the UEFA Cup.  Since then, there have been some high-profile embarrassments.  Just this season, Palermo were eliminated at the qualifying stage by Thun of Switzerland.  Last season, Napoli  played lethargically and drew with the likes of Utrecht, and a last-gasp goal against Steaua Bucharest barely qualified them for the second round, at which hurdle they stumbled to the team they expertly vanquished just yesterday in the Champions League--Villarreal.  And lest we forget, just last season, Juventus could not beat Poland's Lech Poznan to get out of the group stage.

If money is not the motivation, then can not sporting merit be enough in and of itself?  If Italian teams see the Europa League as an opportunity to try out youth and players who get less action during the league season, then why can not a certain quality of performances be virtually guaranteed? Is the failure of Italian teams in the Europa League also symptomatic of a failure of a system that is not producing enough quality?

Indeed, the last question is sobering, and reminds us of how far Italian football has sunk.  Parma and Inter won Europe's second-tier competition five times between them in the 1990s.  However, in the last twelve years, not one Italian team has triumphed.

Yesterday, Serie A had a memorable day in the Champions League.  Inter went to Moscow and managed a thrilling 3-2 victory against CSKA Moscow, while Napoli cruised past Villarreal 2-0 at the San Paolo.  It is also up to the Europa League contestants of Lazio and Udinese to keep the momentum going.  If Serie A clubs do not heed these alarming signs of decline, then Italy will inevitably be fighting to keep hold of the three coveted Champions League spots it does have left.  Trying to win back the third spot from Germany seems improbable; losing the fourth position to France or even Portugal does not.  And even for Italian football, which seems to withstand all sorts of debacles, that ignominy may be one too many.

UEFA Coefficient Rankings taken from Bert Kassies's website


  1. Italy's fall from its position as one of the top three football nations in Europe has mainly to do with Calciopoli, I think. It's been many years since Italian clubs actually cared about the UEFA Cup/Europa League, but great performances in the Champions League made up for it, as far as the coefficient system was concerned. Calciopoli and Inter's subsequent dominance in the Serie A made the league much less competitive, and therefore Italian teams didn't perform as well in the Champions League as they had before. With the Serie A no longer dominated by one team, the teams are once again starting to get results in the Champions League. And the fact that many clubs are now either renovating their stadiums or planning to build new ones makes me think that Italy might be on its way back in Europe, though it will take a while to be able to compete with the Bundesliga.

  2. The score difference between Bundesliga and Serie A is scary! Bundesliga has beat Serie A in every past season from the table. To me, there is NO WAY that Italy would re-gain that top 3 seed within 5 seasons.

    What's more, the risk of being leapfrogged by France and Portugal is more real. Had that happened, I am sure that many would love their asses off. It would be hilarious for the neutrals but sad for Serie A fans. Imagine a league with Juventus, Inter, and Milan (with 12 CL trophies combined among them, and counting) would have to fight for two CL seats.

    The whole idea of EL being treated with equal weight as CL is purely stupid. Then again, Italian clubs need to do something to save themselves. It is already late, but better late than never.

  3. Actually, we will earn points over Germany each season now as their coefficient was better than Italy's one in each year of the table ... So if the Italian teams can seriously compete in Europa League (and if the ones in CL manage to get some results), in 3-4 years, Italy could be back in the main championships ... Of course, it's if and only if a work is done by the qualified teams and if Italy can avoid new Roma and Palermo cases from now to the next few years.

    Successfully changing the mentalities in Italy regarding the Europa League (damn, even if it's not the main competition, at the end, the team is an European champion, got a title, and is qualified to compete against the best team in Europe at the end of the Summer, that should motivate at least a little bit) is the only way to reach the third place back and avoid to become a "small championship" by letting Portugal and France being higher than us in the table ...

    I'm not that optimistic.

  4. Thanks for the comments!

    @Anonymous-Sept28: You are optimistic, and that is good. It is an interesting angle you take regarding Calciopoli. However, we can't rely on the top teams doing the business only in one competition. We need Udinese and Lazio to have a great run in the EL (at least QF). As for the renovations and building new stadia...all positive, but it remains to be seen how much revenue a simple renovation (like Roma and Napoli are planning) will bring versus a brand new stadium.

    @xudong: It is a horrible scenario that I don't even want to contemplate.

    @Geo: Yes you're right, but I think we will start earning more next season (when our points are divided by 6 instead of 7).